Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mobile homes as affordable housing in Orange County? – Molly DeMarco

Molly De Marco
Molly De Marco

Are mobile homes the (partial) answer to affordable housing in Orange County? Or maybe a better question, should mobile homes be part of the affordable-housing solution in our communities?

Manufactured-housing communities, also known as mobile-home parks, were originally meant to be temporary housing for travelers. So, you might be surprised to know that mobile homes are the predominant affordable housing in Orange County and North Carolina. We have over 100 mobile-home parks in our county, with nearly 8 percent of all housing units in the county being mobile homes. Some are within mobile-home park communities and some are by themselves. A 2011 Orange County assessment of these mobile homes found just 18.7 percent were in sound condition, 49.1 percent needed minor repairs, 28.8 percent needed major repairs and 3.4 percent were economically beyond repair.

Some information about mobile homes: often the dwelling itself is owned by the occupant, who rents the land it sits on for $250 to $350 per month, making it an attractive, affordable option for many of our low-resource neighbors. What often makes these dwellings expensive are utilities. Many mobile homes are quite energy inefficient, and utility bills can be as high as land/pad rental. Mobile homes are also often sited on undesirable land such as land subject to flooding that can leave those homes vulnerable to natural disasters. For example, the Rocky Brook Mobile Home Park in Carrboro flooded when we got hard rains two years ago because it sits in a low-lying area.

Another drawback of mobile homes is that the tenants, many of whom are Latino, face poor treatment at the hands of landlords, but feel they can’t complain for fear of retaliation. Where would they go if forced out? Many mobile homes are too old to be moved elsewhere, and even if they could be moved, where could they move to?

Orange County government has been talking about supporting mobile home parks as a part of its affordable housing plan for years, but as yet little has been done. Initially, the stance was to discourage the purchase of mobile homes because of their rapid depreciation, high potential utility costs, and poor mobile-home park management. The reality, however, is that it is a privilege to discourage this type of affordable-housing option. It is often a necessity. Further, this type of housing already exists, unlike affordable single and multi-family units which are in extremely short supply.

There is currently a strategy contained in the county’s Capital Investment Plan that calls for funds to be earmarked in the budget for the banking of land on which to move mobile homes. An informal work group on mobile homes as affordable housing has sprung up with representation from Orange County and Chapel Hill town governments, affordable housing providers (Habitat for Humanity, Community Home Trust, CASA) and private-sector developers. The county does have one program in place, The Urgent Repair Program, administered through the county housing department, that can help mobile-home dwellers with repairs to make their mobile home more economical.

Mobile home parks within Chapel Hill and Carrboro and particularly those along the MLK corridor are threatened because of the value of the land they sit on and the fact that they already have water and sewer extended to that land. As these plots of land come up for sale, they are being sold to developers who more often than not are NOT replacing them with affordable housing (mobile homes out in the county are safer because most are on land without water or sewer lines).

The nature of mobile homes (rapid depreciation, poor condition, high utility costs) makes them a challenging affordable-housing strategy to promote. As we continue to discuss plans to create more affordable housing in our communities, however, mobile homes should be part of that plan – they are already here. They do not require a developer to go through the development process and then lengthy construction. We must, though, work to ensure that these homes are safe and indeed affordable.

Molly De Marco is an editor of the OrangePolitics blog. You can reach her in c/o editor@newsobserver.com.

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